PHILADELPHIA—May 1998 was a dark month for the Philadelphia Phillies and their fans.
First, the team said no to Mike Piazza.
Then, J.D. Drew said no to the team.
Drew had represented hope for the future when the Phils drafted him second overall in 1997. But he never put on a Phillies uniform. In late May 1998, after 11 months of testy negotiations, the team’s rights to the outfielder expired.
Days earlier, Piazza had taken up temporary residence in the Marlins clubhouse after being traded by the Dodgers. The Marlins intended to peddle Piazza quickly and Phillies fans lit up the switchboard with pleas to bring the Philadelphia-area native home. But before Philadelphia’s sporting press could even work up a lather in support of acquiring Piazza, club officials reached out to reporters and extinguished talk of bringing the slugger home.
The Phillies’ thinking at the time was understandable. They had been a last-place team in 1996 and 1997, were in rebuilding mode, and were more than one player away from contending. And in those days, they surely weren’t about to spend the money needed to extend Piazza’s contract.
That darkness of May 1998 has long since cleared for the Phillies and their fans.
A decade after they couldn’t consider acquiring the greatest hitting catcher ever, were spurned by Drew, and soon after they saw stars Curt Schilling and Scott Rolen leave while questioning the team’s commitment to winning, the Phillies are having trouble getting the smell of champagne out of the clubhouse carpet. They have won three straight NL East titles. They won the World Series in 2008 and followed that this year with a trip back to the Fall Classic, where they were beaten by the Yankees in six games.
For their rise, the Phillies are Baseball America’s Organization of the Year for 2009.
There is no one reason for the franchise’s turnaround. Sure, it boils down to winning. But behind those wins has been a commitment to player development, a core of homegrown talent that has reached stardom, a ballpark that has provided revenue streams only dreamed of at charmless Veterans Stadium, the deft touch of a well-decorated veteran baseball executive, an exciting team that awakened a dormant baseball town from a long slumber, and an attitude.
Ruben Amaro Jr., who recently completed his first year as general manager after 10 years as an assistant, has seen the attitude adjustment up close.
“One thing (manager) Charlie Manuel talked to me about when he took over (in 2005) was he believed the whole demeanor of the organization needed to change,” Amaro said. “The negativity needed to go away. Even when we had some success, there was a prevailing feeling—internally and externally—that, ‘We’re doing OK now, but it’ll collapse, it’ll turn south.’ For whatever reason—personnel, experience—the general mindset has changed dramatically. Now the feeling is, ‘Things are going to be OK.'”
The change may have started when Pat Gillick was hired as GM in November 2005. The Phillies had become a factor in the NL East but couldn’t reach the postseason. Gillick, who had guided three other clubs to the playoffs, liked the core of players that predecessor Ed Wade had assembled, and he believed the organization, with a few tweaks, could win.
Gillick stepped down when his contract expired a few days after hoisting the World Series trophy in October 2008. He remains with the club as a deeply involved adviser and his philosophies still impact the team.
“Pat brought a different way of viewing things and a different way of creating solutions to the organization,” Amaro said. “He stressed being creative. Don’t be afraid to take a risk, you might hit on something. Consider anything. He brought an open-mindedness that has been infused here.”
Amaro saw that open-mindedness shortly after Gillick was hired. Gillick, Amaro and Mike Arbuckle, the former assistant GM who oversaw scouting and player development, were at dinner in a Philadelphia restaurant. The waiter recognized the group and mentioned that the busboy, a devout Phillies fan, had some suggestions to improve the club. Gillick told the young man to pull up a chair.
Consider everything. Listen to everybody. Take a risk.
Amaro used those philosophies when the Phillies rotation sprung holes at midseason this year. In a meeting, assistant GM Scott Proefrock said, “What about Pedro Martinez?” The Phils set up a simulated game for the free agent righthander in the Dominican Republic. Scout Charley Kerfeld watched the workout, phoned Amaro and said, “I’d sign him.”
Chuck LaMar, another Amaro assistant, suggested that Martinez throw again. Another assistant, Benny Looper, watched that workout and concurred with Kerfeld. The Phils signed Martinez and were 8-1 in his nine starts.
Much of the Phillies’ success can be traced to the work of Wade, Arbuckle and scouting director Marti Wolever and his staff. The commitment to player development netted the Phils a core that includes Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley, Cole Hamels, Ryan Madson and Brett Myers, who is a free agent. Carlos Ruiz was a second baseman in Panama in 1998 when scout Sal Agostinelli signed him for $8,000 and said, “You’re a catcher, now.”
Shane Victorino was a Rule 5 player who spent a year blossoming with the Phils’ Triple-A club before coming up. Gillick acquired closer Brad Lidge for three homegrown players. Amaro got lefthander Cliff Lee for four homegrown players, while hanging on to top prospects Kyle Drabek and Domonic Brown.
Howard was a fifth-round pick in 2001. He leads the majors with 198 homers and 572 RBIs the last four seasons. It’s sometimes forgotten that Howard could be producing runs for another team.
A year before moving into Citizens Bank Park, the Phils increased their payroll and signed Jim Thome. Thome hit home runs and created excitement as Howard was rising in the minors. In 2004 and 2005, the Phils talked of trading Howard. Ultimately, Wade, and then Gillick, held on to the slugger. Gillick’s first big move was to trade Thome, with the Phils eating more than $25 million of his contract. The move allowed Howard to blossom into a gamebreaker.
But it is widely believed, by everyone from Amaro to Manuel to Gillick, that the trade that ultimately put the team on a path to success was the one that sent Bobby Abreu, one of the most offensively gifted players in franchise history, to the Yankees in July 2006. The trade was part salary dump (the Phils saved $20 million), part investment in the Rollins-Utley-Howard core.
Gillick believed that Abreu had become complacent, and he feared other players were feeding off that.
“I think Jimmy and Chase were respectful, if that’s the word, of Bobby, and when he got out of here it set a different tone,” Gillick said.
Said Amaro: “That trade changed the mindset in the clubhouse. It gave people the opportunity to move forward. Also, you trade a player like that and the guys in the clubhouse look in the mirror and say, ‘Wow, they’ll trade anybody.’ ”
The Abreu trade opened a spot for Victorino in right field and gave the team some of the athleticism Manuel had wanted. It also opened an outfield spot that Gillick filled the following offseason with one of his best moves, the signing of free agent Jayson Werth. It was a classic take-a-shot Gillick move, as Werth had missed the 2006 season with a career-threatening wrist injury. In 2009, the Phils’ three starting outfielders, Victorino, Werth and Raul Ibanez, Amaro’s first free agent signing, all were all-stars.
For every Werth, Lidge (he came off a down season in Houston when the Phils dealt for him), and J.C. Romero (he was signed after a release from Boston) success story there has been a failure. Gillick gave up Gavin Floyd and Gio Gonzalez for an injured Freddy Garcia in December 2006. Adam Eaton was a $25 million bust. But even in failure, Gillick’s approach never changed: Don’t let mistakes stop you from trying new things, from taking a risk. That mindset still resonates.
Of course, it helps that that the Phillies now have the revenue to absorb mistakes. Citizens Bank Park, the place to be in Philadelphia, has helped give the team those funds.
“I think our popularity is tied to our facility, the talent on the field and the quality of person we put on the field,” club president David Montgomery said. “It has come together for us in three areas.”
But it all starts with winning. The allure of a new stadium lasts only so long. Fans want to see a winner and, for many reasons, the Phillies are finally that.
“We feel like we’re making memories for a lot of people and our entire organizational goal is to keep making them,” Amaro said.